alan warner





  Warner holds court at a table littered with empty glasses. A natural storyteller, he revels in recounting his past escapades. "I was in this bar once, and I was so drunk. I'd been drinking all the way down on the train from Aberdeen," the Scotsman begins exuberantly. "I was sitting with my mate, and I took a swig of Guinness, and vomit was instantly right up in my throat. I put down the pint, went through the door that said GENTS, and I hit the cubicle door. It busted open and there was a guy taking a crap, and I spewed all over him! Over his face and his bare thighs. And I turned my head to the side, but the spew was coming out with such speed that it was bouncing off of the partition and catching him. He just looked at me with this horror, and I punched him as hard as I could in the nose. I just thought he was going to kill me. He was a big guy, I thought he was going to rip my head off. And his head went right back and blood went all about. I just looked at him and went, 'Sorry mate, but who takes a shit in a pub?!?' You've never felt remorse like I felt the next day. Like remorse," he says, shaking his head. "Poor guy. I mean can there be a God? You're sitting there having a quiet, enjoyable shit, the door busts in, a guy spews up all over you and then he punches you right in the nose. And they say God exists."

With his first novel, Morvern Callar, Alan Warner has created a rich and vibrant work. The eponymous Morvern is one of the more unforgettable protagonists to come along in recent years, remarkable in that unlike the recent clichéd portraits of disaffected youth, she is a survivor. Rather than recede into self-pity because of the turns her life takes, Morvern is resilient and never loses her lust for life.

Morvern's shivery voice and bleak perspective epitomize the trademark anomie of the rave generation, and yet there is a strange gentleness about her that hints at something deeper than a mindless, amoral party chick. At first glance she's all hedonistic raver, but on closer inspection, you feel that there is some substance to her, some hope behind that lack of affect. It's almost as if she's motivated by a vague search for salvation, as if she's zeroing in on an awakening--some kind of 90's nirvana.

An astute chronicler of Scottish subculture, Warner calls Morvern Callar "an old existential novel recast in today's colors." What becomes clearly evident as we follow Morvern on her search for self is the author's love of language, and he achieves, at times, a poetic grace rare among young authors. The author seamlessly reconciles Scottish slang and the lyrical vernacular with beautiful prose.

Warner, a native of Argyll, Scotland, was not born into a family that valued reading. "I grew up in a house with no books in it." says the author. "I remember that sleeve notes on jazz records were the first bits of literature I ever encountered."

He and his contemporaries stem from, and seem to be reaching an audience that doesn't normally read literature. "Where I came from is a small, backwards town. The whole culture was pretty repressive; guys who read books were looked upon as effeminate, so reading instantly became kind of an underground act. There was a reaction against the culture I was in, which was small town, philistine, patriarchal, sexist, violent," and, he adds, "full of sheep-shagging."

A couple of the books that made a strong impact with the author early on were Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton and The Immoralist by Andre Gide. "Cry, the Beloved Country was the first book that ever made me cry," says Warner. "I just couldn't believe a book could make me cry, I'd never read anything like that before." His reasons for reading The Immoralist were not purely literary. "To be honest, I used to go into the book shop and look at the blurbs on the back of the books and anything that mentioned sex, I'd buy. And on the back of The Immoralist it said 'sexual nonconformists' so I went right up to the counter and bought that sucker. I read it expecting to get a hard-on and ended up crying. It was pretty confusing! Mind you, it's been the other way around as well."

Warner started writing fiction when he was in his early teens. "I think writing for me is an extension of play," he states. "Like when you're a kid you play and you have this incredibly active imaginative life and then suddenly, society demands that we stop and that we start thinking about getting a job and stuff. I always found it difficult to keep the imagination down. All I want in life is to be involved in some creative process."

After attending school in London and Glasgow he got a job driving trains, but his focus remained on his writing and social life. "It was a good life, but hard work and long hours. Weekends were just mad with drinking and drugs and dances. Ten years of having to work shit jobs gives you an edge on reality. And a lot of material," he says with a sly grin. Warner attributes part of the recent renaissance in Scottish literature to similarities between the writers and their audience. "The thing that's happened in Scotland is, the gulf between writers and readers has gotten smaller. Writers feel divorced from the whole literary world and have more in common with the people who actually read the books than they used to. In the past there was this sort of ivory tower thing, but now some sort of democratization of literature is going on, whereby it's becoming more open as an art form."

Warner, who still writes in longhand, doesn't quite know what to make of all of the attention being paid to him and his mates. "It's hard to be at the center of all of that and be objective about it. It might just be another form of cultural appropriation," he muses. "There's just this incredible thirst for novelty and I don't want to be part of novelty. But, there's so much good stuff. James Kelman, Duncan McLean, Gordon Legge, Paul Reekie, Edward Morgan... there's just so much going on there, it's such a vibrant culture just now, and I feel totally connected to it. There's a little bit of shite here and there, but generally it's good stuff."

The political atmosphere in Scotland is highly charged, and a deep resentment of England still exists. Nowhere is this bitterness felt more powerfully than in contemporary Scottish writing. "The divide between Scotland and England has widened in the past 15 or so years. When you don't feel politically represented, you get angry. When you feel alienated and disenfranchised, you get angry," says Warner. "I think that Scotland is headed for independence; it's just a matter of time."

Music plays a big part in both the lives of Scottish youth and Morvern Callar. As Morvern tells her story, she lets the reader know what songs she's listening to on her walkman, essentially providing a soundtrack to her life. "Rock music has become part of the dominant culture," explains Warner, a former jazz bassist. "A lot of the songs in the book are somewhat avant-garde, and strange. I like a lot of weird stuff that no one listens to and the track lists in Morvern are just a way of saying that this culture exists."

Another round of drinks and Warner talks of the contemporary literature that has him excited. "Mark Richard has just got it; he can create characters in three lines. His writing is so mysterious and beautiful," he enthuses. "Elizabeth McCracken, Thomas McGuane, Barry Hannah, Michael Ondaatje, James Kelman, E. Annie Proulx. All brilliant."

It's 3am and we've moved on to Mona's, a dingy bar in New York's Alphabet City when Alan Warner picks a passage from Kelman's How Late It Was, How Late to illustrate why he admires his fellow Scottish author. I jokingly submit to him that this is environment where all editorial decisions should be made. "Absolutely. Every one. At this time and under these circumstances," he replies with complete earnestness.

A few hours later, as the early morning sunlight signals a close to the evening's revelry, Warner seems satisfied by his first trip to New York. "We've done ourselves proud," he concludes. "Think of the crimes we've committed."

--Larry Weissman
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